GREEN BAY – Strolling through the Green Bay Packers locker room late last season, Clay Matthews remarked on the uncertainty that awaited him this spring.
A reporter wanted to know what everyone wanted to know: Where was the veteran linebacker headed? Matthews was set to become a free agent, and with the Packers season already over before its end, it seemed a natural time to ask.
Except Matthews couldn’t possibly answer.
“Shoot,” he said, sitting down at his locker, “I’d like to know too. I guess the combine is when that will start to be figured out. I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”
Matthews’ got his answer Tuesday when he agreed to a deal with the Los Angeles Rams reportedly worth a maximum of $16.75 million over two years. And while there may have been uncertainty late last season, Los Angeles was a pretty easy destination to predict.
The Rams play in the same city where Matthews grew up. Matthews played college football at USC before being drafted in the first round by the Packers in 2009. He maintained a home in the area, where he would live during the offseason.
They're also a Super Bowl contender with a defense much better suited to fit Matthews' ideal role as a rotation pass rusher. With Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr., it's unlikely Matthews will be counted on to play the 756 snaps (71 percent) he took last season. At this stage in his career (Matthews turns 33 years old in May), less could mean more.
The last time Matthews’ contract was set to expire, the Packers preempted the open market. They signed their edge rusher, just 26 years old at the time, to five-year, $66 million extension in April of 2013. Months before the final season of his rookie contract started.
Showing no interest in early negotiations this time, the Packers were content to let Matthews test the market. Matthews, who turns 33 years old in May, is coming off the least statistically productive season in his career. He had just 3.5 sacks in 2018 and, at his age, the Packers could afford to be patient.
They did not have to give him any deal that made them financially unsettled.
In doing so, they decided not to match the Rams' offer. With or without Matthews, the Packers were faced with rebuilding their outside linebacker depth chart this offseason. They did so in signing free agents Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith earlier this month.
Now, the funds required to re-sign their 11th-year veteran will be reallocated elsewhere.
General manager Brian Gutekunst paid his respects to Matthews in a statement via the team website:
"We want to thank Clay for all that he has contributed to the Packers over the past 10 seasons. As the franchise's all-time sack leader and an integral part of Green Bay's Super Bowl XLV championship, he will be remembered as one of the greatest players in the history of the organization. Clay will always be a member of the Packers family. We wish him, his wife, Casey, and the rest of their family all the best moving forward."
Even if Matthews declined in recent seasons, he will be remembered as one of the fiercest pass rushers in Packers history. The franchise’s all-time leader in sacks with 83.5, he isn’t far from reaching the triple-digit milestone. At the combine, Gutekunst made clear Matthews’ legacy with the Packers was cemented, no matter his destination this spring.
“He’ll be a Packer Hall of Famer,” Gutekunst said. “He’s been a great player for us for a long time.”
Matthews exploded on the scene as a rookie in 2009, recording his first of four double-digit sack seasons and six Pro Bowls. A year later, he was first-team All-Pro with 13.5 sacks in 2010. The appropriately nicknamed “Claymaker” never made a bigger play than when he forced Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to fumble on the first snap of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLV. The Steelers were driving for a potential go-ahead score at the Packers’ 33-yard line until Matthews’ helmet dislodged the football, popping it into the air.
The Packers answered with a touchdown drive and never trailed again, winning their fourth Super Bowl.
Because of his sack total, Matthews will be remembered for his hard-charging rushes coming off the edge. Selflessness is a harder trait to quantify, but Matthews showed it in abundance during his time in Green Bay. With the Packers defense spiraling midway through the 2014 season, they used their bye week to get creative. Two weeks after allowing 44 points on the road in New Orleans, the Packers defense entered the field against Chicago with Matthews at inside linebacker. He would play that position for the next 24 games, including all of 2015.
That 2014 season is the last time Matthews recorded double-digit sacks in his career. Yet while his move off the line of scrimmage might have limited his sack total, it highlighted the linebacker’s versatility. His ability to make plays all over the field, not just as a pass rusher, is something the Packers defense could miss.
In an offseason when outside linebacker was a priority, the Packers agreed to terms with edge rushers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith. The Packers would do well if either or both can perform up to the level of Clay Matthews in his prime.